Decarboxylate is a big word that is hard to spell and even harder to enunciate at times. However, for such a complicated array of letters, its meaning is quite unpretentious. In the simplest terms, it means to heat. To further elaborate, decarboxylation (also known as decarbing) refers to a process where heat is applied to cannabis buds which changes the chemical structure of the cannabinoid compounds housed within a particular cultivar.
You see, cannabinoids in a cannabis plant must go through several processes before they materialize into compounds that react with the human body’s endocannabinoid receptors. While several of these manifestations occur during plant growth, heat must be applied after harvesting the buds to synthesize the cannabinoids fully.
For those who vape or smoke their bud, all it takes to decarboxylate the cannabinoids is to ‘light it up.’ The heat instantly converts phytocannabinoids into molecular compounds which react with neurotransmitters inside our bodies. However, to synthesize the cannabinoids for other cannabis products such as brownies or other edibles, tinctures, and topicals, heat must be applied to initiate the transformation of the chemical structures.
While the big word may seem a bit intimidating, cannabis decarboxylation is a reasonably straightforward process. This article explains the science behind cannabinoid morphology and some easy do-it-yourself techniques to turn cannabinoids into the sought-after psychoactive effects cannabis consumers crave.
What Science Has Learned About the Cannabinoids
Cannabinoid research began in the 1940s, but the elusive tiny molecules were not fully understood until 1965 when Dr Raphael Mecholam isolated Delta 8 and 9 Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and Cannabidiol (CBD). Since then, science has uncovered 100 different cannabinoids present in cannabis species.
Research is mainly centred around the primary cannabinoids THC and CBD, but many secondary cannabinoids play a significant role in the outcome of a cultivar’s cannabinoid profile. In fact, if it were not for the presence of Cannabigerolic Acid (CBG-A), there would be neither Tetrahydrocannabinolic Acid (THC-A) or Cannabidiolic Acid (CBD-A).
CBG-A is the ‘mother of all cannabinoids.’ It is the first cannabinoid to emerge as the plant develops through its lifecycle. Through enzymatic activity within the plant, as it matures through the flowering stage, CBG-A is converted into either CBD-A, THC-A, or Cannabichromenic Acid (CBC-A). These acidic molecules do not influence the endocannabinoid system in the human body due to an extra carboxyl group (COOH) attached to their molecular chain.
When decarboxylation occurs as heat is applied, the cannabinoid acid releases the carboxyl ring along with Carbon Dioxide (CO₂). The chemical reaction from applied heat converts the acidic molecules into psychoactive forms, bonding with the body’s endocannabinoid system. Depending on the presence of each cannabinoid in a particular strain reveals the therapeutic enhancement the cultivar portrays.
Natural decarboxylating of the cannabinoids does occur during the drying and curing period and over time, but not enough to offer the health benefits of therapeutic remedies or get you exceedingly high. Unless, of course, you want to sleep. THC-A will eventually oxidize and degrade into Cannabinol (CBN) which has sedative properties to help with insomnia.
Recent Scientific Findings
Thankfully, science has come before us and laid out the different optimal temperatures for decarboxylating the molecular compounds without too much risk of losing their valuable contributions. A group of scientists from New Zealand’s government innovation agency, Callaghan Innovations, published an article in 2020 revealing optimal conditions to decarboxylate cannabis.
Their findings revealed a longer, slower process for CBD-A to convert to CBD, with an optimal low temperature of 176⁰F (90⁰C) for 12 hours to achieve ideal synthesis from the cannabinoids. On the other hand, THC conversion withstood higher temperatures of 320 degrees Fahrenheit (160⁰C), but the processing time for its reaction was less than seven minutes.
The team also determined the quantity of plant material in the batch affected the rate of transformation. High amounts of bud in the process drastically slowed down the decarb process.
Decarboxylating the Terpenes and Flavonoids
The molecular activity which occurs in a cannabis plant is a marvel. Not only do the cannabinoids influence a strain’s performance, but just as significantly, terpenes and flavonoids contribute a great deal to the overall outcome.
Every cannabis cultivar exhibits a unique profile of cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids contained inside the bulbous trichomes showering the plant. These secondary metabolites influence potency, flavours, aromas, and colour pigmentation.
Whereas cannabinoids convert from acidic molecules to psychoactive forms when cannabis is decarboxylated, turning the heat on terpenes and flavonoids will fry the delicate compounds. They evaporate and degrade quickly in high temperatures, sending their contribution to the strain up in smoke.
Instead, commercial cannabis companies will often use extraction methods to preserve the volatile components. Vacuum-drying ovens and Supercritical Carbon Dioxide (SC-CO₂) extraction methods isolate cannabinoids, terpenes, and other secondary metabolites.
These extraction processes preserve all the beneficial molecules for future use in medicine, foodstuffs, and topical products. Without compromising the integrity of a cannabis plant’s potential, extraction offers precision, science-based methods to retain the influential contributions from the strain.
High-tech cannabis companies budget the expenditure of extractions into their operation, knowing it will balance out when the product is sold. Small-scale operations, on the other hand, may have a more challenging time coming up with the necessary cash for extraction.
Do-it-Yourself Decarboxylation Methods
For small-scale operations, there are a few options available to decarboxylate the molecules from dried and cured buds. The following procedures can be done at home or in a commercial kitchen without too much fuss.
One of the most popular methods for decarboxylation is to put the cannabis flower in an oven. The simplest procedure is to line the bottom of a baking sheet with parchment paper and evenly spread the dried and cured buds or kief in a single layer. Cut the bud into small pieces or use a course grinder for greater decarboxylate results. Cover the buds with aluminium foil before baking.
Another option is to place the plant material in a turkey baking bag and either set it on a cookie sheet or place it in a glass Pyrex dish. The pack provides an airtight environment which reduces oxygen and allows for better terpene and flavonoid preservation.
For first-timers, start with a small batch of cannabis to get acquainted with the practice. It is best to start with lower temperatures between 230 – 240⁰F (110 -115⁰C). Depending on the dryness of the bud, baking times can range between 25 – 45 minutes. The final product will have a golden colour when the process is complete.
The decarbed cannabis is then cooled to room temperature and placed in airtight containers until use. A warning regarding these baking procedures – there will be a heavy aroma of cannabis wafting throughout the house for a period of time afterwards!
Water Bath or Slow Cooker
While this procedure takes longer for the decarboxylation process, odours in the kitchen are eliminated because the buds remain in an airtight container. This method is famous for its simplicity as boiling water stays at a constant temperature.
Fill a glass mason jar one third to one-half full of buds cut into small pieces. Use a two-piece seal and lid, making sure the cover fits snug on the jar. Next, fill a deep pot or a slow cooker about halfway full. Hint: the jar will float, so lay it on its side.
Bring the water to a slow boil, approximately 210⁰F (98⁰C). Cooking times may vary but expect it to take up to 4 hours. It is good to keep an eye on the water level as some water will evaporate during the procedure. Also, after a couple of hours, the buds will start sticking to the side of the jar. Gently shake the jar to rearrange them.
Watch for the buds to turn golden brown when assessing doneness for full decarboxylation. When the process is complete, set the jar aside and let it completely cool before opening.
Living in modern times presents new options for decarboxylating cannabis with high-tech machines that do all the work with a push of a button. While due diligence should be applied before purchasing one of these devices, there are many reviews available online to help in the decision-making process.
The following are some of the top-selling decarboxylate apparatuses on the market today:
- Ardent Nova Decarboxylator
- MagicalButter DecarBox
- Levo II
- MB2e MagicalButter Machine
- Ardent FX